The danger of pronouns (when they, we, and he/she all are out to get you)

Nikki Fisher

Pronouns: a type of speech which stands for a noun (e.g. person, place, thing, situation, idea, etc.) referenced earlier in a given context.

Some examples? I, me, we, us, you, she, he, her, him, it, they, and them. There are other kinds which have more complicated functions, too. This, which, who, all, everyone, myself, their, the list goes on.

We use these words all the time; in fact, I have already used four in this sentence, now five.

If we did not have these words, our language would bloated, unaesthetic, and inefficient. We would always be stuck naming particular things, the proper nouns of people, places, and groups. I have used the word “we” already three times in this paragraph, but to whom am I referring? English speakers? The human race? All sentient, language-capable life forms within 100,000 light years?

Now, I’m a language geek, so questions of these sort are fascinating to me. But despite the great utility of pronouns, I think they cause us a heck of a lot of trouble, regardless of our level of interest in language.

Let’s start with gender—many people do not feel comfortable forcing their gender identity into one side of the male/female binary. In these cases, they may feel uncomfortable ascribing themselves third person singular pronouns like “he,” “she,” “her,” and “him,” which push the speaker to make a black and white decision about their own identity. In speech, the pronoun “they” is often used to avoid such dichotomies, but still some grammar snobs argue that its function as a third person singular pronoun causes too ambiguity (though I disagree). Others movements have invented pronouns of their own to ameliorate this problem (e.g. “ze,” “hir,” “co,” etc.) Better yet, some European languages have added official gender-neutral pronouns to their language (e.g. the Swedish pronoun “hen”).

So, gender identity highlights one major problem with our pronoun system. The following problems I have been noticing have less to do with the system itself and more to do with “us” (or more specifically, English speakers in my local community).

Sometimes, pronouns let us cite facts without doing our research. Because “You know what “they”always say, right?”

Pronouns also allow us to bash on a group of people without consideration for individual complexity. I see this happen a lot with institutions of power. We blame administrations, “the man,” the government, corporations, and society at large without considerations for the many complex, human individuals who make up the group by using pronouns like “they” in an accusatory tone.

I’m doing this very thing to you all right now. The whole article, and in many of my columns, I address something that “we” should do or “we” should not do. I wrote earlier, “We blame administrations.” But who is actually out there in the real world doing this? You may assume that this belief is based on my careful observations of the world, but what if it isn’t? What if I formed this belief by watching two people sitting on the bus using pronouns as I described above? How can you be certain I have evidence if I use a general pronoun like “we”?

Perhaps analyzing this too far gets us into tricky waters, but it’s a phenomenon “we” have to be careful about.

The main point here? It’s frightening to clump a bunch of individuals together into words like “they” and “we” without really considering who “they” are and how one formed their opinion of “them.” We are never going to rid ourselves of pronouns—and we probably shouldn’t—but we have to be careful when addressing the abstract, looming theys of the world, or one day, they might bite back.